Unforeseen personal challenges almost derailed my project. Here’s what got me back on track.
It’s common to see studies tracking the rates of police shootings, but there have been no comprehensive studies of how they affect the people who experience them. Further, these tracking efforts typically note only fatal shootings and do not account for people who were wounded by gunfire or who were shot at but not injured.
I wanted to examine the impact of shootings by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) on the physical and mental health of residents where the incidents occurred.
Over the past few years, I have dedicated most of my time reporting on the LASD. I have uncovered a 50-year history of deputy gangs, criminal organizations that operate within the department, questionable arrests, brutal assaults by LASD employees and suspicious deaths.
In my spare time, I created a database of all deputy shootings for which I had been able to obtain records. The database pulled from a number of sources: LASD’s own website, which has provided information about shootings since 2016; the Los Angeles Times Homicide Report; and several lists of people killed by deputies compiled by community organizations throughout Los Angeles County.
My initial database was a clunky Google Sheet that tracked the minimum details: who was shot, where, when, and which station the responsible deputies came from. Even this initial data showed a trend of shootings in the southern regions of Los Angeles County.
With the support of the Center for Health Journalism 2023 California Health Equity Impact Fund, I set out to identify the area with the most shootings and analyze their consequences.
To begin, I requested records of all deputy shootings, which had already been made available to the public under California legislation. In 2018, state law began to require disclosure of specific police records, including any incident in which a peace officer fires a gun at someone. The department produces digitized redacted versions of these records on a rolling basis. I managed to obtain over 1,000 records dating back to 1984. However, many appear to still be missing.
With these records in hand, my team of research assistants and I began updating my database under the tutelage of Andrew Ba Tran, data reporter for The Washington Post and a mentor for the program. Andrew guided us through creating a database that would track all items necessary for meaningful analysis.
We faced many challenges. The Los Angeles Times database identified several people as killed by sheriff’s deputies who were killed by other departments. There were no records for several people identified by community groups as shot by sheriff’s deputies. To track down these cases, I went through newspaper archives and scraped any information I could.
After several weeks of hard work, the database was complete and we had an area for focus: the city of Compton. The next goal was to find out how these shootings and the presence of the department affected residents. I worked with my contacts in the community groups and with my community engagement editor, Cassandra Garibay, to create a brief survey asking residents about their encounters with deputies and any changes to their physical and mental health they noticed afterwards.
Over the next several weeks, I drove to Compton with a translator and canvassed residents at supermarkets, laundromats, libraries, municipal buildings and community centers to complete paper surveys with people in person. I also hung flyers throughout the area, directing people to complete the survey online or by calling a hotline. Cassandra and I created a postcard that was mailed to all addresses on the streets with the highest number of shootings via the U.S. Postal Services’ Every Door Direct Mail.
In addition to the survey, Cassandra and I planned a town hall event at the New True Faith Missionary Baptist Church in Compton for residents to share their experiences in community with one another.
The community survey and town hall event allowed me to have a more nuanced understanding of residents’ feelings about deputies. The town hall also provided a forum for people to speak openly about their experiences and find solidarity with their neighbors. There does not appear to be a consistent space for this type of event, and it became immediately clear that there was a great need for it. Many people said they wanted to participate regularly in discussions like this, and several people said they wished to become more active in demanding change within the department.
I also did considerable research and field reporting. I reviewed each of the 88 shootings that had occurred in Compton since 1984 and attempted to contact family members or attorneys who had represented them. The vast majority of the shootings did not result in civil lawsuits — instead, the victims were criminally charged.
Most of them appeared to have pleaded guilty and were now serving time. Several left California. Others disappeared from the Internet or public records. I was able to get in touch with only a handful of the 88 victims or their families.
Once the town hall was finished, I began writing in earnest. I was energized by my findings and eager to share them with the world. I had planned about one month for the writing process and stuck to 90% of my deadlines. However, an unforeseen event in my personal life threw my meticulous time-management planning completely out the window.
Suddenly, I had to juggle finding a new apartment within five days, moving, and writing the articles while managing a major depressive episode. For stretches of days I could barely get out of bed and eat, much less dive into a story about traumatic violent events affecting entire communities.
Emails from editors seeking updates on my progress stacked up. Calls from photographers seeking guidance went unanswered. Text messages from the web developer bringing the database to the public were ignored. I felt like a failure as a project manager, yet felt physically unable to correct the course.
Two weeks from publication, I received a message from Knock LA’s photo editor, Ben Camacho, informing me that one of the fathers featured in the series had been hospitalized. During our interview, Fred Williams Jr. told me that after his son’s killing, he had been diagnosed with several debilitating health conditions. After we spoke, he had a seizure resulting in a brain hemorrhage and his hospitalization.
The news landed like a gut punch. Although I knew I had not caused this to happen, I felt responsible. Surely, a stranger showing up and asking deep questions about the shooting and the family’s emotions in the months since must have played a role. My thoughts about his family snapped me to attention. Whatever I was dealing with was miniscule, comparatively. I needed to finish the project. I could be depressed later.
For the next two weeks, I wrote more frantically than I ever have in my life. I spent 13 hours a day on my computer, sifting through the details and pounding them into a compelling narrative. I would take a break every few hours to hop on Zoom meetings and phone calls with my collaborators and ensure things were still going according to plan.
Somehow, despite my negligence, we pulled it off and made the original deadline.
I’m immensely grateful for the teams of editors, collaborators, and assistants who worked on this project. Together we created the first study of its kind examining the effects of deputy shootings on a community. We built the first ever public-facing, searchable database of LASD shootings from 1984 onward.
Now, the community has data that backs up what has been said loud and clear for decades.